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Knight at the Movies: We Were Here; Shame; Ken Russell tribute; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-12-07

This article shared 3601 times since Wed Dec 7, 2011
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It's taken a second viewing of director David Weissman's We Were Here to break down my resistance to its subject matter.

The documentary (now playing On Demand)—which Weissman co-directed with his editor, Bill Weber—focuses on the impact of the AIDS epidemic on San Francisco from the beginning of the outbreak at the end of the '70s through the truly terrifying decade that followed. Perhaps my hesitation was because of my own long history with AIDS and all that it has meant for me (the loss of so many loved ones, the years of frustration in the face of ignorance and indifference, queer activism, the myriad of painful emotions, etc). What queer middle-aged man doesn't have a long history with this insidious disease and hesitate before plunging back into this subject?

The director's approach couldn't be simpler: Weissman relates the story of San Francisco's response to the crisis through the memories of five individuals who lived to tell the tale. However, the cumulative power of the stories these five—a queer activist; a shy AIDS ward volunteer; a fearless lesbian nurse; a sassy, heartfelt florist; and an emotionally bereft artist—relate turns out to be incredibly moving and worth the emotional journey. Each presents a very personal history of life during the pandemic. As we listen to the tremendous personal cost to each, we see clips of archival footage and photographs, unflinching in portraying the terrible physical toll the disease took on so many of our young comrades. So many…

To the detailed memories (the movie is akin to the Shoah Project, in which Jewish survivors of the Holocaust relate their stories on camera so they are never forgotten), the participants bring a depth of feeling—and, yes, moments of lightness—to what amounts to a testament to gay culture. The San Francisco queer movement was certainly at the forefront of the epidemic, Weissman reminds us. Also, because of its brave and often outraged response (a response New York's gay culture shares), it also served as a mirror for urban cities across the country, Chicago included.

During the first viewing of We Were Here, I guess I just didn't want to open myself up to the intense amount of feeling that Weissman's movie so effortlessly puts on the screen. Sometimes a movie has the ability to put you in touch with places inside yourself that maybe you don't want to return but in doing so the catharsis, bittersweet as it often is, can also bring back the joy and humor that's always a part of the fabric of the things hidden away.

Weissman's movie has that rare gift—thanks to his marvelous, unforced way with the material and his disparate storytellers—and days after watching it again, I'm thinking of so many of my fallen comrades and the light and love they brought to all our lives and am rejoicing at being reminded. Michael Allen. Dixon Tabla. Neal Kristie. Vejnoska. Don Ziebarth. Ron Ziebarth. Danny Sotomayor. Jeff Fields. So many more. There are so many amazingly talented, beautiful, funny men gone but not forgotten.

Actor Michael Fassbender has been on a roll this year with a variety of roles that have certainly put him on the buzz list—none more so than his starring part as morose sex addict Brandon in director/co-writer Steve McQueen's Shame. Loaded title aside, the bulk of the movie offers a truly cogent portrait of an urban dweller whose dazzling good looks; effortless charm and style; and apparent talent for business (we're never quite sure what he does) belie a slowly rotting interior. McQueen quickly establishes Brandon's intense preoccupation with sex. (Even jacking off in the urinal, he's matter-of-fact.) It's no wonder that the film has garnered an NC-17 rating amid lots of controversy (including a full-frontal scene in the opening minutes that gives Ewan McGregor a run for his money).

Just as quickly, however, all that sex becomes unsexy and the torrid becomes tired. Then, Brandon's emotionally screwed-up sister, Sissy (a sensational Carey Mulligan), moves in to his fashionable digs and the chilly tone begins to intensify. At first things seem okay between brother and sister; however, once Brandon and his boss take in one of Sissy's club gigs (in which she sings a torchy version of "New York New York"), it seems to open a hole into his psyche that sends Sissy on a downward emotional spiral. We don't get much about the background of the two (though there's a heavy suggestion of incest) but clearly something in Sissy pulls strings deep inside Brandon. His response, naturally, is to have more and more sex.

The film's climax (sorry) comes during a night of out of control debauchery for Brandon—one that finds him engaging in all manner of salacious activity, including an intense encounter with a man in the bowels of a gay-sex club and a three-way with two bisexual women later that night. However, these latter two set pieces are shaped so the viewer is cued to find them nothing less than the acts of a man hitting bottom—a straight man resorting to sex in a gay club! A sexual romp with two lesbians! The horror, the horror!

At that point the movie's sudden and rather surprising heterosexual moralizing—unconscious though it may be—left me out in the cold with regard to Brandon's fate. This judgmental lapse threw me out of the movie and I never quite found my way back in as the oversight seemed so egregious (queer sex once again the worst sin a straight guy can commit, don't you know). Shame on Shame for resorting to the same old stereotypes and hang-ups it mostly seemed to eschew.

The film world lost a truly original talent last week with the death of avant-garde director Ken Russell. Russell made a smattering of films in his native Britain in the early '60s before breaking through with 1970's Women in Love, a sensational adaptation (by queer activist/screenwriter Larry Kramer) of D.H. Lawrence's controversial novel. Russell's penchant for breaking taboos began with the film, which featured a nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed (a first for U.S. audiences). The director went on to make a number of sexually tinged films throughout the '70s, many of them with queer or pseudo-queer themes. In 1971 he cast Richard Chamberlain as the lead in his biopic of gay music composer Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers and next infuriated censors with his explicit version of The Devils.

Russell's over-the-top movies reached their apogee (both critically and at the box office) with 1975's Tommy, the musical version of The Who's rock opera that included Elton John, Tina Turner and an Oscar-nominated Ann-Margret in its cast. Russell continued to turn out his audacious, quasi-biopics (Mahler, Listzomania, Valentino) as the '70s continued. In 1980, he gave William Hurt his breakthrough role in Altered States and followed it four years later with one of his most polarizing films, Crimes of Passion, in which Kathleen Turner played a prostitute stalked by Anthony Perkins as a priest wielding a steel dildo.

Lair of the White Worm, released in 1988, was a horror film with strong sexual overtones (no surprise there); it was considered a return to form and was the director's last popular success. Russell went to direct several other movies and even staged operas that continued to exhibit his penchant for shocking audiences. Russell, who was married four times, never hesitated to explore the outer reaches of mainstream society or sexual themes—exposing conservative attitudes and gleefully ignoring them with each new offering.

Film note:

—White Light Cinema presents No Skin Off My Ass, the 1991 feature debut of provocative queer filmmaker Bruce La Bruce. The film, which combines punk and queer aesthetics and isn't available on DVD, is a combination of Warhol and a lot of the other filmmakers of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early '90s (albeit, naturally, La Bruce's approach is a lot rawer). This rare screening takes place Saturday, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m. at The Nightingale, 1084 N. Milwaukee Ave. Call 773-381-3102 or visit www.whitelightcinema.com .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


This article shared 3601 times since Wed Dec 7, 2011
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